At the beginning of April this year I asked my Dad, “If I ever qualified for the World Championships, would you come to support me?”
“Of course we would, darling, of course.”
So, two weeks later when I called them and told them I had won in Putrajaya and qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships to be held in Mont Tremblant, Canada in September, they obliged and booked their flights. I had hardly any holiday left to take from work, so it had to be a short trip. Depending on which way you go and how the connections work, the journey from Singapore to Montreal is between 23 and 30 hours. My husband and I decided that it was too far for such a short stay so he and the children would stay at home in Singapore for the week.
In June I took my new blueseventy Helix wetsuit with me and did a few practice swims at Tri-Farm in Essex, UK. It was the first time I had swum in a wetsuit and I really liked it. After that, back in Singapore we did a few practice wetsuit swims in the (very warm) sea with Ben. He was less than impressed with my wetsuit “peeling” skills. I was pretty rubbish – it took me ages to get it off and I was really not very elegant. I bought baby oil, lots of it, and practised getting the Helix on and off more quickly.
A few weeks before the race, the front brake on my N-Gen was sticking and needed to be replaced because the spring inside was cooked. I raced a sprint distance triathlon and had to do it with my old commuter bike. The new brake arrived a week or so before I left Singapore so I got it changed and put new tires on with enough time to do a little riding with it to check everything was all good before we left.
I borrowed a bike box from my very kind friend, Rob, and began to prepare my equipment for the trip.
My gear for the race included:
blueseventy Helix wetsuit
blueseventy Siren goggles x 2
bottle of baby oil x 2
Sportsbalm anti-friction balm
Journey Fitness Company Tri-suit
My helmet and bike shoes
elete Electrolyte drops
Booom Almond Energy Bars x 2
Gels x 6
Julbo Race Sunglasses
Altra 3-sum triathlon shoes
Altra Intuitions with elastic laces (I didn’t decide until the morning of the race which shoes to run in…!)
Maxxis Campione Tubular tires x 2
Masking tape (to tape gels to my bike)
Elastic bands (to keep my bike shoes the right way up)
Mio Alpha (which I wore for the whole trip)
Oofos recovery slippers (for before the swim and after the race)
… and for the journey and prep:
… and a few other things including my toothbrush and some underwear!
A few days before I left my sons asked why I was packing – I explained that I was going to Canada for a race and I was going to meet Grandad and Grandma there. “So Canada is at Grandma’s house?”
“Not quite. Grandma is not at her house. I am not going to Grandma’s house. Grandad and Grandma are in Canada.” I showed them where Quebec was relative to the UK on the globe, “They’re here. This is where the race is - Grandad and Grandma are waiting for me at the race.” I think they understood.
When I arrived home from work on Tuesday evening, my youngest son was already asleep. He had a fever and was not well so I had to settle for kissing him goodbye whilst he slept. I read a book with my eldest son and as I was tucking him into bed, explained to him that I was going now to get on the aeroplane and I’d be back in a few days. He said he didn’t want me to go, but when I mentioned there was a possibility that I might return bearing gifts he was cool with it, gave me a kiss and a hug and settled down to sleep. I had a very light dinner with my husband and then took a taxi to the airport.
After an uneventful transfer through Paris I arrived at Montreal airport 25 hours later where my parents were already waiting for me. We walked together to collect the rental car and made our way up into the mountains to Mont Tremblant Village.
The next morning after breakfast we walked to the athlete check-in where I collected my race pack, then to the athlete village where I collected a kit bag and had a look at the transition area. We all went out in the car to drive the bike course, Dad driving and me navigating. There were lots of hills, lots and lots… and they were huge. The road surface was very good and there were no sharp corners. At about 60km we found ourselves in Mont Tremblant centre-ville, so we stopped for lunch at a very nice café/ bakery/ patisserie, Patisserie Le Montagnard, I got my legs waxed (!!), we visited the supermarket, tried to change some British pounds to Canadian dollars and then continued on our way to check out the rest of the bike course. The last 15km of the bike course looked even harder than the first 75 – up and down and up and up and down and up again, very steep, very limited respite.
When we arrived back at the hotel we noticed that they had put out the old towels as bike cleaning cloths instead of throwing them away. Such a good idea!
After lunch we went to the lake where I did a practice swim in my wetsuit. The course was not yet fully marked out, so I swam out about 600 metres, back in to the finish of the swim course and run onto the beach for a (fairly smooth) wetsuit “peel”. The water was lovely - crystal clear and not at all as cold as I had expected – and the scenery around the lake was beautiful.
I had finished unpacking and building my bike but the rear brake was not working at all – it felt like the cables had been pulled apart or broken inside the frame. I was on my way out of our hotel to find a bike shop when my Dad came back to the room and told me he’d found someone who could help. His name was Randy Villanueva. He used to be the team mechanic for several professional cycling teams, speaks four languages and knows everything about any kind of bike. He was awesome. He adjusted my brakes more precisely than they had ever been. I am so grateful to have met this super-friendly, helpful guy who really knew his stuff. Thanks Randy.
On the Friday morning, after breakfast I took my bike out to do a recce of the run course. It was a two lap course, along the edge of the lake and then up to the next village (and another lake) and back, then the last 1-1.5km was into the village of Mont Tremblant up the steep (24.4% gradient) hill to the top of the village and then back down again. The last super-steep hill was in the pedestrian zone of the village so I couldn’t cycle it, but I already had an idea of how tough it would be to do twice, once after 9km and again after almost 20km on the run… after the swim and the (super-hilly) bike…
I had a nap in the afternoon – I woke up very early the whole time we were in Canada, due to jetlag I think, so I was quite tired. That evening, we had the welcome dinner in the huge marquee and followed by the race briefing and then off to bed immediately afterwards!
Saturday morning was bike and gear bag check in. I used this as another chance to walk through the various transition zones. This was the first time I had done a transition with separate zones for bike gear bag, bike and run gear bag, so I was a bit worried that I would mess it up. In addition to walking through the transition several times, I spent a lot of time running through it in my mind, visualising each stage, each task I had to complete and the most efficient order for each part.
Apart from a short trip up to the summit in the ski lift to see the views (which were stunning), we spent most of the rest of the day on Saturday just hanging around, reading, eating and trying to remember to drink enough.
On race morning, I got up at 5:30, ate my breakfast and then got dressed in my tri-suit with my race chip on my ankle and anti-friction balm in all the places it needed to be. I plaited my hair and then walked down to do the last minute adjustments to my bike and gear bags.
It was REALLY cold! I was wearing my ski jacket but my feet were freezing. The past few years of living in Singapore and the UAE, only going back to Europe in the summer have made me a bit soft. I tried to ignore the cold and concentrated on sorting out my transitions:
I went to the T1 gear bag first which was in the big banquet tent. I took out everything except my helmet and sunglasses. I like to push my sunglasses onto the front of my helmet so I only have to pick up one thing and put it on, then run and once I am moving I can take the sunglasses out of the holes in the helmet and put them on. In practice they had fallen out of my helmet a few times when I had picked it up, so after putting the arms of my sunglasses in the helmet holes, I put a little patch of masking tape over one of the arms so they wouldn’t fall out but it would be easy enough to peel off so I could get them on to my face.
At the racks, I went through clipping my shoes on the bike, taping my gels to the frame, filling up my water bottles, checking the bike was in the right gear, the tire pressures were still OK and that there was nothing mechanically wrong with it – no brakes sticking, etc.
I put all of the things I had taken out of my gear bags into my huge blueseventy transition bag and then made my way back to the finish line where I had agreed to meet my parents. While I was waiting, I started to feel cold again, so I started to put on my wetsuit! They arrived just as I was getting the suit up to my waist, my dad helped me pull it up and then I put the rest of it on… I was warmer. We walked to the swim start along with hundreds of others.
At the start of the pro-men’s wave a jet plane flew over from the other side of the lake and fireworks went off from the start gantry. There were fireworks again for the pro-women’s start (the jet didn’t come back though!) and some of the wave starts after that.
I took off my ski jacket and ventured into the water. It was much warmer than I was expecting. The sand was really cold, but the water was really quite nice. I did a little warm up, made sure my wetsuit was on properly and comfortable, chatted to a couple of people who had the same colour swim cap (red) as me and then got out again. I ate a gel with 12 minutes to go before the wave start and moved closer to the start pen. When we were called in I went to the front of the group. I was absolutely sure I would be a long way from first out of the water, I am comfortable enough to cope with people swimming past and/or over me and would rather take the head-start at the front of the bunch than be playing catch up right from the start of the race.
The gun went off and we ran in – a few people were doing dolphin dives until the deeper water, a few trying to run in as far as they could, and some were swimming from quite early on so it was a bit of a free-for-all at the start. I got “dolphin dived on” very near to the shore, punched or elbowed in the face a little later (and I bit my tongue) and then a little further out a kick in the eye. Nothing was too bad – my tongue was a little sore, but no blood and my goggles didn’t budge so I carried on. I drank quite a lot of the water in the rough at the start but the rest of the swim was really lovely. I felt good and relaxed by about 400 metres out and got into my rhythm. The fresh, cool water of the lake felt nice on my face and there were no waves. I drafted on and off, sometimes losing the feet of someone who was a bit too fast for me and sometimes overtaking someone I felt was going a bit too slowly.
Lots of people said to me that it would be uncomfortable, claustrophobic, restrictive on the shoulders, chafe round the neck etc, but it wasn't. I loved swimming in it - it's super comfy and I had my fastest swim ever. I totally agree its reputation as the best wetsuit in the world is merited.
I stood up to run once my hand touched the beach and started to take off my wetsuit. I ran past the “official peelers” and kept going until I had it down to my waist, then I stopped on the side of the path to take off the rest. A spectator half pushed/ half helped me to sit down and then yanked the wetsuit off of my ankles – Thank you, whoever you were!! I put it across my shoulders and continued the (very, very long) run to the transition tent and my bike.
T1 was pretty smooth, helmet out of my bag onto my head, wetsuit into the bag and then run to the bike. The little piece of tape on my sunglasses worked well. They didn’t fall out of my helmet, but it was easy enough to get them out and put them on! I counted three racks after the entrance into transition, found my bike easily and ran out with it, hopped on and started pedalling.
The first few kilometres were rolling hills, gradually increasing in length and gradient. I knew I need to get my feet in my shoes before the climbing started so on the first gentle downhill I got both shoes on. Then I started to eat an almond Booom bar. I barely had time to swallow the first bite when the first climb began. The bar was relegated to my back pocket until 10 minutes later when I finally had a hand free and enough saliva to finish it. Throughout the bike ride I was quite disciplined with my hydration and nutrition, timing 30-45 minutes between each gel and sipping elete water every few minutes, except during the high speed descents which were terrifying… it was as much as I could do to hang on to the aerobars and keep my bike going in a straight line, especially when the front wheel was twitching due to the cross winds. I think I did quite a good job of recovering and making the most of the “free speed” on the downhills but I could definitely have saved a bit of energy by being a little more relaxed. One thing I learnt from this is that hill training is important in both directions, not just the climbing, but being able to make the most of the descents too.
I was through the first 35km in just under an hour, holding steady and feeling comfortable. However I still had the big climb at 50-52km to do and the punishing last 15kms of the course to survive.
The “big” climb was not too bad. It was long but I felt no need to stand up and stayed down on my aerobars for nearly all of it. Most of the bike course was on good, smooth road surface and quite wide. I enjoyed it a lot… even with the hills! At the last aid station at 75km I took nothing. I had half a bottle of water left, I was confident that I was well hydrated, I knew that the last part of the bike was going to be tough and I didn’t want any unnecessary extra weight to carry up those hills. I looked at my watch; my heart rate was low and I worked out that if I could manage the last 15km close to the same speed as the first 75km then with a reasonable run I would be on course for sub-5hr finish.
I was up out of my seat a lot for the next half an hour. It was tough. At about 81km I passed a woman on the side of the road with her bike upside down, sobbing. It wasn’t until I had turned around and passed her again that I saw the support motorbike carrying the spare wheels. I signalled to them and shouted that there was someone at kilometre 81. I don’t know if they heard me but they were going in that direction anyway and she would be hard to miss. I hope they got to her and she managed to finish the race.
My feet had been cold for the whole of the bike ride and were still numb at the end of it. Just after I jumped off of my bike I heard my parents shouting encouragement. My Dad managed to get some photos of me running into T2.
It was the first time I’ve done a race with “bike catchers” – they were great! I left my bike with them and, with no feeling in my feet, hurried towards my run gear bag. I put on my shoes, shoved my cycle helmet into the bag and took my cap and race belt with me, putting them both on as I ran towards the transition exit.
I glanced at my watch and saw I needed to run 1h35m to finish under 5 hours. My toes were still numb and my legs felt really heavy. I needed the run of my life and it felt as far out of reach as it could possibly be. I was gutted. Strangely the huge 24.4% gradient hill near to the end of the course popped into my mind and I told myself there was no way I was going to walk that hill. I felt resolute, energised and determined to fight the feeling in my legs until I made them work for me again.
Soon after exiting transition we attacked the first hill. Although I was in “fight mode” mentally, I was calm and knew that I must not burn myself out too early on the run. For most of the first lap I held back a bit, not taking it easy, I was trying, but just below that delicate threshold where I would have been using too much, too early. We came into the village and I felt good as we started up the hill; there were a few people walking and I was passing with every few steps. About three quarters of the way up the hill I came up behind a wheelchair athlete who was pretty much stopped. His arms were shaking and he really looked like he could do with some help. I had read the rules very carefully and it said something along the lines of: although athletes would be disqualified for accepting outside assistance, participants could assist each other. So, I ran up behind him and pushed him.
At the start of the second lap I thought I may have left too much in the tank, so I nudged up the effort a little. The rolling hills out to the next village were still hard – both for me and for the wheelchair athlete. I saw him again half way up a hill and pushed him. I didn’t see him again after that; he made up more ground on the descents than he lost on the climbs. I hope he wasn’t annoyed that I had tried to help him; I hope he didn’t feel I was taking anything away from his efforts.
At about 17km I ran through an aid station next to a lady asking for isotonic drink. She didn’t hear the people offering it and only approached the people offering water. I had a cup of energy drink, which had too much in it for me to get down in one go, so once I had drunk what I needed I passed it to her. She didn’t understand at first so I had to explain that I had heard her asking for it and saw that she missed it…. so here I was offering her some. She took it in the end! I don’t remember seeing her again either.
I don’t remember much about the last four kilometres except the two biggest hills. The penultimate was hard but the last one, up to the top of the village, was a case of mind over matter (or mind over legs). It seemed like everyone else on the hill at the same time as me was walking, all looking down, some with their hands on hips and I passed everyone! It felt good (in the most masochistic, painful, satisfying way!!!) to smash out one last huge effort!
My Mum and Dad were at the top of the hill cheering me on just before I let my legs stride out to carry me between the crowds back down the hill towards the finish. Just before I crossed the line my name was called out. I was so happy to have finished!
So, I didn’t have the run of my life and I didn’t achieve my goal to finish in under five hours - I finished in 5:12:28. I did not even get a personal best time over the distance. However, I had my fastest swim ever, I was much closer to the podium than to last place, I executed a good race on a really tough course, I made no mistakes, judged my pacing and effort almost perfectly and, most importantly, I had loved every second of it. I had such a good time. I’ll never forget this race. The only thing that could have made it even better would have been to have my husband and sons there with me.
After the race
I grabbed some water and a little bit to eat then made my way towards the massage area. I chatted to a few different people while we were waiting. Then a woman came out who I recognised… a girl who I used to play netball with at summer camps and had always been super strong and fast. She had turned pro a few months before after finishing as the first age grouper last year at the 70.3 world championships and winning the ITU age group world championships for the Olympic distance too. It was Laura Siddall. I think she recognised me too, but couldn’t work out why or where from. We had a little chat. She’d come third in Mont Tremblant at the Ironman 70.3 in June but had not had a great race at the world championships and was a bit disappointed. Another pro – Magali Tisseyre came by and sat down for a chat with the girl who was next to me in the queue. That's one thing that most people agree is great about Triathlon. Our pros are normal, friendly, approachable humans who just happen to be able to do superhuman things - swim like fish, ride like demons and run like the wind. They're not (like professional athletes in some other sports) crazed celebrities who live in another world with their huge egos. We all race on the same course on the same day at (almost!) the same time... and then we meet them in the massage queue - it's awesome!
Then I was called in for my turn. It was not the most pleasant massage I’ve ever had; my quads were pretty sore and I was a bit sensitive all over. Still the lady masseuse was very friendly and I think it helped because the next day I barely ached (perhaps I didn’t try hard enough after all…??) and by the time I flew home on the Monday evening I was tired, but my legs felt fine. My kit had all been great during the race too and I did not have a single chafe or blister.
Mont Tremblant is a wonderful place to stage a race like this. I’d recommend it for a visit, especially for the ski season! I sent a few photos to my husband and told him we should consider moving. I even visited an estate agent while I was there, I was that impressed!
Dad helped me pack my bike into the box again, we loaded the car and drove back to Montreal. We had a wander around, found a place to have lunch and then I left them in their B&B for the evening and drove myself to the airport. It was wonderful having them there to look after me and support me. I’m very grateful to them both for making such an effort to come and I really appreciated their presence and encouragement.
Now the question is… what’s next?